She's the lead engineer who worked on the self-lacing McFly shoe

Tiffany Beers, engineer and innovator at Nike, with a sneaker prototype in Beaverton, Oregon.
Tiffany Beers, engineer and innovator at Nike, with a sneaker prototype in Beaverton, Oregon. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEAVERTON, OREGON (NYTIMES) - The only things missing were a white laboratory coat and an electrified hairdo as Ms Tiffany Beers, 37, showed off an assortment of boots and shoes adorned with dangling wires and MacGyvered circuit boards.

Ms Beers, an engineer by training and a senior innovator by title at Nike, works in the company's vaunted Innovation Kitchen, so named because Bill Bowerman, a founder of Nike, used a waffle iron in a kitchen to create the "waffle sole", a game changer for sneakers. But her office is littered with prototypes and drawings of projects believed so important to the future of Nike that journalists who decline to sign nondisclosure agreements, including this one, are barred entry.

So she had agreed to meet in the Blue Ribbon Studio, an arts-and-crafts space here on the Nike campus, outside of Portland, Oregon. "The motor fit, it pulls everything at once, which is very different from how laces work, which pull everything incrementally," she said, describing a shoe she referred to during its development process as the McFly, after Marty McFly, the character played by Michael J. Fox in the 1985 film Back To The Future and its sequels.

Wearing a black tunic and black pants, she showed off McFly prototypes, including a snowboard boot with a clunky dangling circuit breaker and white high-tops with a fly embellished on the tongue. Asked to describe her own sneakers, she looked down, then insisted that the visitor unsee them for reasons of corporate secrecy.

Notwithstanding that she could tell you about her current sneaker project, but then Nike would have to kill you, Ms Beers is being sent by the company on something of a victory lap after her successful role as the lead engineer and product manager for the self-lacing McFly, which came onto the market last year as the HyperAdapt 1.0 sneakers.


The 1989 film Back To The Future Part II shows Marty McFly in the seemingly unimaginable year 2015, putting on Nikes whose laces tie themselves. This was the notion of Mr Tinker Hatfield and Mr Mark Parker, then both up-and-coming designers at the company.

In 2005, Mr Hatfield, by now a design star of Nike, and Mr Parker, now the chief executive, decided to make the shoes for real, and Mr Hatfield chose Ms Beers as the engineer to oversee the project.

She was new to the company then and this was a side venture that she worked on here and there amid other assignments. Back To The Future fans had to content themselves with a limited-edition replica of the futuristic shoe called the Nike Mag, which did not self-lace, sold through a raffle that raised money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Then at the 2014 NBA All-Star Game, Mr Hatfield announced to reporters that the self-lacing shoes would be complete by 2015.

He intended to signal to the company that this was a top priority. "It's not unheard-of for me to get things moving in unexpected ways," he said. Ms Beers learnt that the shoe was being fast-tracked when she read his interviews on the Web. She had five weeks to get a shoe ready for Mr Parker. "Tiffany was on the hot seat," Mr Hatfield said.

The HyperAdapt shoe, in which sensors inside the shoe detect the foot and activate a mechanism to tighten the laces, was a billboard release from the company, inciting both nostalgia and the desire for the new. There was frenzied demand for the shoes, which retail for about US$720 on Nike's website and in some Nike stores and feel as if there is a small computer under the arch of your foot, because there is one.

Nike has long associated itself with professional athletes. Now it is showing its commitment to technology and, as a woman in engineering, Ms Beers has emerged as a heroine in her own right.

"Not only did we end up with a cool new technologically advanced sneaker," Mr Hatfield said, "but we also gave someone an opportunity that led them to become an inspiration for others."

Ms Beers is not the only woman working in an important position in the sneaker world, or at Nike. But she is hardly swimming in a sea of female peers. The sneaker industry, and the culture it created, is heavily male, which makes notable her successful involvement in a high-profile project, said Ms Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the travelling museum exhibition Out Of The Box: The Rise Of Sneaker Culture. (She is the author of a book by the same name.)

"We have had a very tortured relationship between feminism and athletics," she said, "and it's worth noting that most iconic sneakers only come in men's sizes."

Of Ms Beers, she added: "She worked on one of the most difficult and the most hyped aspects of the mythological sneaker design, and I think that's fantastic."

Ms Beers grew up in the Rust Belt, in Townville, Pennsylvania (population: about 330), and attended Penn State Erie, the Behrend College, living with her grandmother and studying plastics engineering. In her freshman year, she played volleyball on the school's Division III team as an outside hitter. "I am very short for an outside hitter," she said. "I'm just 5-4, but I can jump like a monster."

She quit volleyball after a year because its demands on her time were too great, as she also worked full time through most of her college days at a factory that made the lids for Pringles cans and Sharpie markers.

After college, she longed for an experience outside the Midwest. She searched the Internet for "Nike jobs" and found a posting for a product engineer. Besides the fact that she hates feet, working at the sneaker company was her dream job. She was called out to Oregon for an interview a few months later. Before her meetings, she hitchhiked to Mount Hood to go snowboarding.

She got the job and moved to nearby Portland in 2004, working on plastic air bags that go into the soles of Nike Air sneakers. She knew that the Innovation Kitchen was where it was at and worked steadily towards getting a gig there.

Junior employees at Nike are encouraged to network with senior staff members and executives. In 2005, Ms Beers introduced herself to Mr Hatfield. Soon after, he called her back to his office and showed her an online petition with 30,000 names of people calling for Nike to make the Back To The Future sneakers. "He asked me if I could build that shoe," she said.

She had seen the film in her youth but watched it again and went back to Mr Hatfield to express her concern about getting the shoe to light up as it does in the movie. "It's so ridiculous to look back at it now because lights are easy," she said. "I call lights the 'gateway drug'. People like to put lights in all sorts of things and it's easy to do, but lights lead to sensors."

She hopes more affordable future models of the HyperAdapt shoes will make life easier for pregnant women who struggle to bend over and for people with special needs. "There are a chunk of people who can't tie laces," she said, "and that is a big deal because they are spending 20 or 30 minutes a day putting on and taking off their shoes."

Since undertaking the HyperAdapt project, she has become obsessed with studying people's lace-tying behaviour. It drives her crazy that people do not adjust their laces throughout the day, loosening them when their feet swell during prolonged exercise or standing. "I call it lace toleration," she said. She records her observations on spreadsheets.

She keeps spreadsheets to analyse her golf game. She has spreadsheets to better understand ingredient interactions in her baking.

And she keeps spreadsheets to try to make sense of the gender gap in sports, which she believes exist, at least in part, because of segregation on the practice and game fields.

"I have a lot of questions about how we are training women athletes and why we are isolating the genders in teaching," she said.

She also uses spreadsheets to keep track of her other job: She is a mechanic and the car racing pit crew manager for her husband, Mr Olivier Henrichot, an amateur racer and a designer who also works at Nike. They met in the Innovation Kitchen, where they bonded over a love of their sporty cars - his a Corvette, hers a Camaro SS. She plans one day to get behind the wheel on the track herself.

"My whole life has been competing with the boys," she said.